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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ships of Black Flag, Black Ship - Part I : The Sloop

I will be writing some short descriptions of the types of ships mentioned in Black Flag, Black ship. Where possible I will try to treat you to not only text and drawings but also video links so the ships will become more readily appreciated. I will also be giving you a crash course in sails and rigging in this and upcoming blogs.  Since this is a pretty arcane subject and I am by now means a master of it, I do hope to provide enough information that you'll have a better appreciation for the maritime tradesmen who sailed and maintained these ships.

There were a bewildering number of sailing ship types during the age of sail.  I plan to discuss the ships used in each of my novels and the actual ships that inspired my imagination.  But first a little terminology to help you understand two basic types of sail configurations.

I think everyone is comfortable with the idea that on sailing vessels sails are affixed to masts so the force of the wind fills the sails and propels a ship in the direction her master desires.  Masts are the large upright poles that support the sails.  The masts are held in place by very ingenious arrangements of ropes and wooden apparatus called rigging.

In this era, masts were made from evergreen trees. For Instance, the first masts of the  USS Constitution were made from eastern white pine trunks.The tremendous stresses places on the masts by the wind-filled sails meant that masts that could flex would better survive the buffeting of storm winds. Because of these stresses, the rigging had to be continually adjusted and repaired. 

The crewman in charge of the sails and rigging was known as the boatswain, bos'un, or bosun. He was also responsible for the anchor and its employment. He supervised work parties and trained apprentice seamen in marlinespike seamanship, which in part is the art of knot-making, making and repairing rope, lashing down objects, and maintaining a ship's rigging.  Because he worked closely with the crew, the bosun and his bosun's mates were responsible for carrying out ship discipline.

Each type of sailing ship has a specific sail plan, based on what the ship's function.  Sail plans are based on the square-rigged sail, or the fore-and-aft sail.  These two configurations are called rigs.  Depending on the vessel you can have both types of rigs present on a ship.  A square-rigged sail hangs on spars called yards, which are  perpendicular to the masts and ran from left to right, that is, from  larboard (port) to starboard. A fore-and-aft rigged sail is suspended from the mast from front to rear, that is bow to stern, or forward to aft. The fore-and-aft rig sail can be either triangular or trapezoidal in shape.

The sloop was one the major workhorse of the Caribbean Sea.  It was a shallow draft vessel, well suited for working close to coral reefs that often blocked entrances to bays and harbors.  Just exactly what a sloop was at this time was not well defined and what the British Royal Navy termed a sloop was even less so. 

Generally, the merchant sloop was a singled masted vessel with fore-and-aft sails.  The keel of these vessels ranged between 50 to 75 feet in length and with a bowsprit, a long spar for supporting sails at the bow of the ship, they could seem be almost 100 feet in length. The sails could be triangular or  gaff-rigged, meaning trapezoidal sails instead of triangular sails. These sails were suspended on a fore-and-aft spar called a gaff.  This type of sail gives a greater sail area for the height of the mast, translating into more speed.

Merchants preferred the sloop because of its exceptional speed and shallow draft. It was just the thing to break away from larger pursuers. It was also well-suited as a naval patrol craft and a pirate vessel.  The Bermuda sloop and the Jamaican sloop were well-suited for the Caribbean. Made from cedar, the Jamaican and Bermuda sloops were lighter, and  the Jamaican sloop could do about 12 knots.They  better resisted shipworms than European-built vessels, extending the life of the vessel from ten years to 30.

As a smaller vessel,  the sloop's speed and agility allowed audacious attackers to close in on large ships and board them.  Privateer sloops generally carried large boarding parties supported by a number of swivel guns, which are small short-range cannons used to sweep the deck of an opposing ship. If you read the "ships taken" columns in the British Gentleman's Magazine for this era, you'll see that a number of privateer  vessels were smaller ships. Take note of the number of cannon and the number of "swivels."

The British Royal Navy purchased a number of Bermuda sloops,  including three-masted sloops, which the Royal Navy called "sloops-of-war."  The Royal Navy defined a sloop as a vessel with a single gun deck, though its actual sail plan may have varied from the traditional sloop.

A sloop  does have a role to play in Black Flag, Black Ship and you'll have to read it to find out what happened.

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